You sat motionless, eyes glued to the screen. Your heart seemed to be racing, and you had not exhaled for at least thirty seconds. For you knew that the tranquility of that scene, portrayed by innocent bathers casually enjoying summer festivities at the beach, was only a temporary condition; and the haunting, eerie repetition of the sounds you would hear momentarily meant a shark was coming--a harbinger of bloody, gory death and destruction. And as you watched frightened out of your wits, you loved every minute of it!
Remember, "Earthquake?" "The Towering Inferno?" The Poseidon Adventure?" "Condominium?" How about "Avalanche?" Then there were the macabre series’ with a supernatural twist: Halloween, Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street, Parts One to Infinity! How is it possible for movies in which the main scenes involve death and destruction to be so delightfully entertaining? The same way it is possible in education to motivate an "underachiever", who rarely reads and retains information to do so by providing reading materials which depict individuals in perilous situations; or in natural disasters. So what makes the spectacle of disaster so spectacular?
Perhaps the fact that there is something of value about disaster for everyone... except the victims (if there are any) of course. In some instances, people are comparing what is occurring to them with their belief systems (stored as internal experiences in the form of pictures, sounds and feelings). In the process, many of them discover to their delight and amusement that these two events do not match-- that there is nothing in their personal histories that would confirm what they are observing as part of their beliefs, making the entire situation truly fascinating; in still other cases, individuals, upon encountering disaster recognize the events as part of their belief systems because of what they had read, seen or heard second-hand, but had never witnessed for themselves. This realization can be compelling, create spectators, rubber-neckers and curiosity seekers.
The media perpetuates this way of thinking. When was the last time a major network news station began a broadcast with a story such as, "In the South Bronx, today, there were no fires, lootings, or shootings. It was simply a day for plain hanging-out"? Rather, the media amplifies the consequences of a situation by examining it in a variety of ways that elicit internal responses of interest from people.
Several years ago, the residents of Dutchess County, New York, experienced its own version of the movie, "Avalanche." It was called, "The I-84 Rockslide", replete with all the awe and splendor of a natural disaster. For those who missed it (or who were not inconvenienced for three months by the detour that was created during the cleanup), apparently a large section of rock from the formation created during the blasting and construction of I-84, eroded, slipped away from the landscape and crashed down on I-84, across from a relatively unscathed "semi" that had been abandoned on that road the night before. Boulders at least thirty feet high spanned an area two hundred feet in length. Once again the news media commented on its magnitude in a way which made it seem even more ominous, and therefore exciting, by comparing the rockslide to a variety of easily-recognizable but difficult to believe things.
"It's longer than a freight train!"
"Notice from the picture how the 'semi' across the road is dwarfed by the awesome pile of rocks!"
"If all the IBM employees at East Fishkill, day shift were liquid, they could not occupy the volume created by the rockslide if it were a container..."
"Engineers on the scene estimated that it will take at least three days to clear."
The latter was a comment about forecasting, but then, that's another story.
People came from over one hundred miles on several successive weekends to witness, in awe, this event. Picnickers, students of archeology, lovers, fortune hunters of sorts who boldly ventured onto the highway in order to collect some rocks for souvenirs; and just plain folk who were curious and wanted to see a real homespun disaster. One enterprising businessman had a neon sign by his General Store on the detour route that read, "Hot Dogs, Beer, Soda, I-84 Rockslide." It is unlikely that in the past decade this region of New York has experienced an event of equal magnitude. Thus, the average pleasure-seeker in the area has been forced to select lesser three-car pile-ups, fires, two minor earthquakes and scores of newer disaster movies through which to express his delight!